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Wednesday Book: Wild child who taught us to cook

ELIZABETH DAVID was 20 before she learnt how to make a cup of tea, and at about the same time her first attempt to cook lunch for herself resulted in a plateful of burnt onions. This was not surprising. Born in 1913, she came from the kind of English upper-middle-class family background that had nourished generations of kitchen staff, and for most of whose members cookery was a closed book.

The way to the kitchen, for those not themselves from the serving classes, was paved with social qualms. Her achievement was to change all that - partly in an access of outrage brought on by the terrible food of her childhood ("mutton and beef... boiled potatoes... slippery and slimy... greasy... stodgy"), and partly as a consequence of certain upheavals of the mid- century, including the Second World War.

It was some time before Elizabeth David lighted on her metier, but it was plain from the start that this spirited second daughter of a Conservative MP named Rupert Gwynne and a titled lady from Northumberland was destined to make a mark in one of the professions. Among her inherited traits were a streak of aristocratic eccentricity and a full measure of Gwynne-Ridley pig-headedness. Thwarted in her ambition to be an actress (she wasn't good enough), she followed her nose to the South of France, setting sail in 1939 in a boat called the Evelyn Hope with her then lover, Charles Gibson Cowan - a flamboyant actor, writer and one-time tramp, about whom her family took a predictably snooty tone.

Truly, it was not an auspicious moment to leave the country. War broke out and the pair were stranded for a time on the Riviera before getting away via Corsica, Italy (where a night's imprisonment awaited them) and a Greek island, and ending up in Cairo.

There Elizabeth found work as a librarian with the Ministry of Information. By the end of the war she had met and fallen under the spell of her mentor, Norman Douglas, enjoyed the expatriate sociability of Egypt and married an Army officer named Tony David, spending time with him in India before returning to an England ripe for the new gospel of gourmandism. A culinary prodigy was about to be born.

There's an Auden line about the impulse of "pallid" northerners, gastronomic ignoramuses, to take themselves "southwards into a sunburnt otherwhere". A Mediterranean abundance and Epicureanism seemed the perfect antidote to listless post-war England with its rationing and other deprivations. Elizabeth David's earliest writings capitalised on the glamour of a garlic, olive and aubergine, sun-drenched repertoire. There is no doubt that she almost single-handedly revolutionised concepts of cooking and eating in the middle of this century, first by lauding the dishes of France and Italy with their enticing piquancy and unadulterated ingredients, then by rediscovering an all-but-lost English tradition of wholesomeness and seasonal variation.

It was not only her recipes that got an entire generation of would-be culinary sophisticates scurrying about in search of fresh wild thyme or black truffles, but her whole evocative, erudite and urbane approach to the business. Even those, like the late Angela Carter, who let David's "magisterial hauteur" get up their noses acknowledge her primacy among cuisine commentators. Just when it looked as though it might be discarded altogether, as convenience foods became available, she reinstated the middle-class stove.

About half-way through this exuberant biography of Elizabeth David, the life story takes a back seat. The culinary accomplishments, the journalism, the Book of Mediterranean Food, French Provincial Cooking, the establishment of - and quarrels over - the Elizabeth David shops, and so on, all take over. Lisa Chaney goes about her work in a capable, though rather showy, manner, cramming in as much social and historical detail as she can muster. A pity, though, that she allows so many prominent figures in the David story to remain shadowy and vague.

It's a colourful life, what with its enlightened hedonism, sexual escapades, pioneering itineraries and strength of will, but it looks as though we shall have to wait for the authorised version by Artemis Cooper (due next September) to have a few of the outlines filled in. One thing we do learn: if Elizabeth David had a reputation for being a bit high-handed, this may be traced back to a misprint in her first book, published in an era of paucity and austerity. What should have read as a simple instruction - "Take 2 to 3 eggs" - came out as, "Take 23 eggs", no doubt to the alarm of its earliest readers.

Patricia Craig